It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day, so it seems only fitting that we take a look at the issue of piracy and how it relates to RPGs. Now, I’m usually a very tolerant and accepting gnome, just ask any StarWars fan, so it’s no surprise that I have a very liberal attitude about piracy.
Piracy… is wrong.
Yeah, you can argue if you like, but unless you belong to some esoteric school of philosophy that believes in freedom of information, or might makes right, you don’t really have a leg to stand on in a logical discussion of the facts of piracy. And even then, you have to justify your beliefs so as to explain away the inalienable right of those who produce a good or service to provide it to others at any terms they see fit, and that’s the doozy.
Now, I’m not a complete hardass on this one. Piracy is one of those deals where sometimes people look the other way for good reason. If you want to be technical, yes downloading a PDF of an RPG that’s been out of print for the past decade is wrong, but I don’t think anyone out there will crucify you for it. Same goes for taking a preview peak or any number of reasons to pirate. They’re reasonable, they’re just still wrong, so it’s up to you where you stand on when it’s OK to pirate. Just remember that no matter what YOU decide is reasonable, the law may not agree with you.
Let’s take a quick look at how we got in this mess to begin with. How did piracy get to be so ubiquitous, and why are companies completely bunging up dealing with piracy? Piracy is as old as media itself. Hell, monks spent their entire lives in the dark ages transcribing books, and that’s technically piracy. But piracy as we know it today started as soon as the floppy drive came into existence for the home PC. (Well, OK. portable storage media. There were older kinds than floppies.) Back in the hoary days of yesteryear, PC owners would have swap parties, bringing pirated copies of their disks in plastic baggies and traded for whatever anyone else had. You could trade a copy of an operating system for the newest game, or a word processor for a programming language. Piracy on this scale wasn’t a huge deal, at least we didn’t think it was back then. If you didn’t know someone who had what you needed, or you needed an “official” copy for whatever reason (the manual was a good reason back then) you still bought the software.
In the days of the bulletin board services (think a cross between the Internet and a home network: just two PCs talking remotely over the phone) the scope of the people you could reach and the number of programs you could get were suddenly exponentially bigger. Of course, this meant that people were now monitoring piracy, and most sysops (the guy who owned the computer you were dialed into) wouldn’t let people exchange pirated software over their systems. BUT, there were also BBSes JUST for pirated software too. Then came the Internet, and availability made another exponential leap. As more and more people got online, and speeds got faster and faster, getting pirated information and programs became easier and easier. Today, some companies estimate that as much as 90% of the people using their software are using pirated versions .
Pirated software is one thing, but the piracy we’re primarily interested in as gamers, piracy of RPG documents, has made the same progression. With the advent of the omnipresent PDF format, pirated documents are fast and easy to get and usable by everyone. Sites have even come into existence where with a single click you can download entire libraries of books. If we assume the same rate of piracy among RPG books that software companies report, the impact on the RPG industry is undeniable. The greater the rate of pirated books, the less money RPG companies recoup for their efforts, and the less incentive there is to produce RPG resources. Less incentive means less companies producing, means less variety and volume for all of us. Granted, there will always be some market, and the biggest companies will most likely survive, but the worse piracy gets, the tighter that market will get.
Take, as an excellent example of the impact piracy has on the industry, the leak of the 4E DnD pdfs just days before their store release. Granted, WotC riled a lot of feathers by pulling back all copies of their PDFs from online stores and moving to a strictly supscription based system, but isn’t that a logical response to the blaring evidence of the insecurity and inevitability of piracy of PDFs? If every gamer in the world hadn’t had ready access to the 4E books days before they hit shelves, would that decision have been made differently? While we’ll never know, it’s pretty easy to see the connection between the two events.
And what about media companies? Why have they been so slow dealing with the issues raised by piracy? To get the answer on this one, we need to take a quick look at economics. Don’t worry. I’ll wake you when we finish. To start, we need to understand a few terms for different kinds of goods.
Private Goods are goods that are limited in supply, and that supply is easy to regulate. Think of a car. When you buy a car, that’s one less car for everyone else. And if someone doesn’t want you to have their car, they just don’t sell it to you. Private goods are good money makers because of the easy regulation. If you want to charge $20,000 for your new car model, you can. If you want to charge $40,000 you can, and no one can get one unless you sell it to them.
Club Goods are goods that are unlimited in supply, but that unlimited supply is easy to regulate. Think of a theater version of a movie. The movie studio makes one movie once, then sells it to every movie theater ever. If you want to see it, you have to pay to get in the door. Club goods are even BETTER money makers because of the unlimited supply and the easy regulation. The cost of producing a movie per customer is only cents, but they can charge whatever they choose to and no one can see it unless they pay.
Public Goods are goods with unlimited supply, and no control over who uses that supply. Think of a dam to keep out floodwater. Everyone in town gets protection from the floods, but there’s no realistic way to NOT protect Jones, even though he hasn’t paid his taxes in the past ten years. Public goods are shitty money makers because not only can anyone take advantage of them that wants to, but everyone can get as much as they want. In fact, most instances of items that are public goods are provided to the public via government programs because there’s no incentive for a private institution to produce them.
Now, back in the day, media used to be somewhere between a private or club good, depending on how they were distributed. Books, for example, were generally considered a private good, while movies and music were closer to club goods. This was great for producers of these media types, because club goods especially are excellent money makers. But what happens as media is reduced to electronic files and put on the Internet? It becomes a public good. It no longer has any limit to supply (save bandwidth limits) and no reasonable method of control. Producers have been fighting for a long time to retain their control and keep media in the realm of club goods, and continue to do so, but given the rate of piracy and the failure of any kind of DRM, that’s a loosing battle. So, it’s inevitable that media will eventually be a public good.
Economics class is over. You can wake up now.
That’s easy to fix right? All businesses have to do is move from their old business model that works on private and club goods, to a business model that works with public goods, right? Maybe, but so far, the only major functional system for the distribution of public goods is using taxation to buy public goods for consumers and since that’s not going to work any time soon, new business models based around public goods have to be developed. And they are being developed, but it’s going slowly. This is new ground for the business world.
So what can we as consumers do to help? As consumers, we can identify companies that are using new business models that work with public goods and choose to support those models. Here’s a few models that have cropped up recently that might be worth looking at:
Open Gaming Licence Model: Let’s work on the assumption that the core books are the most often pirated books in a line. They’re the most often bought, so that assumption makes sense. If that’s the case, an OGL model helps eliminate the biggest threat of piracy by making the core books of a system free and selling the expansions, which makes it a good model to work with, if not perfect.
Subscription Model: DnD Insider anyone? By taking a page from MMOs, WotC is taking steps in the right direction to deal with the new nature of media. Of course, they’re pissing off as many people by pulling PDFs as they’re exciting by moving in the right direction, so maybe very cautious optimism is the order of the day here.
Free PDF Model: It’s hard to pirate something free. A lot of companies are providing their products freely and then asking for donations from those who use and appreciate their work, especially smaller companies or smaller products.
Ransom Model: Pioneered in 2004 by Greg Stolze and Daniel Solis  for their game Meatbot Massacre, the ransom model works like this: You toss out a paypalaccount, a deadline, an amount, and an abstract. If you reach the amount by the deadline, you finish the product and release it free for everyone. Buying into the ransom model is like buying a lottery ticket where either no one or everyone wins. There have been several sucessful RPG ransoms, and some other products, like webcomics operate with a variant of this model. It’s definately one to watch for the future.
Patronage Model:Wolfgang Baur is doing great things with his patronage model. You basicly buy a share of a project and then get to guide it during design.  I don’t have any direct experience with this one, but I do have a friend who tried it out and can’t say enough about how cool it is. While a patronage model may be more pricey than some alternatives, the quality of work you get out of one (at least the existing example) is phenominal.
If any of those sound like something you’d like to be the model for the future of the gaming industry, find yourself a company experimenting with that model and help them define the future with your gaming budget. One thing piracy will never change is that the future of business is dictated by the flow of money, so every dollar you spend helps forge the business model of tomorrow. Spend wisely.